Joel and Ethan Coen are serious auteurs who make serious movies, like “A Serious Man,” and are meant to be taken seriously. So it’s only fitting that their newest movie, “Hail, Caesar!,” would be seriously funny.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is tasked with maintaining the status quo for Capital Pictures, an early 1950s film studio. Over the course of 24 hours he must deal with the biggest star in his biggest film (George Clooney) being kidnapped, a popular leading lady (Scarlett Johansson) revealing that she is pregnant and unmarried, a self-important director (Ralph Fiennes) being saddled with a well meaning yet out of place western star and twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton) hounding him at every turn.
If that sounds like way too much to cram into a brisk hour-and-a-half comedy, that’s because it is. The movie doesn’t dwell on any one subplot for too long, but instead gives us fun, often silly glimpses into scenes out of extinct Hollywood genres. Johansson dons a mermaid tail, and swims about in a synchronized dance routine straight out of a Lloyd Bacon flick. Channing Tatum plays Burt Gurney, a James Cagney stand-in, as he shows off his long dormant dancing skills in an amazingly homoerotic musical number that’s infectiously charming. And Clooney, who plays the childish Baird Whitlock, somehow makes you believe that he’s too ditzy to be on the set of a “Cleopatra” rip-off.
In spite of these seemingly unrelated vignettes, or more likely because of them, the odd political ramblings or the momentary flashes of religious symbolism seem to carry a legitimate artistic weight. The movie has something to say about artistic freedom and the working class, and has strong nihilistic undertones, as most famously immortalized in the Coens’ cult classic, “The Big Lebowski.” What “Hail, Caesar!” is saying in specific, I couldn’t tell you; I was too busy staring at Channing Tatum’s feet. And his well-toned ass.
That’s not to say that the movie is a masterpiece. It doesn’t reach the emotional heights of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and I don’t know that it will ever be quite as quotable as “Lebowski” (though I will add “would that it were so simple” to my list of usable set phrases). Jonah Hill is criminally underutilized, and his comedic talents are almost entirely wasted. Likewise, Frances McDormand does virtually nothing, and seems to have a part in the film just because she’s married to Joel. The former “Fargo” leading lady is relegated to the editing room, where she gets one sight gag and is never seen again thereafter.
These gripes, however, are easily overlooked. There’s so much fun crammed into every sequence and every shot has some joke or sight gag to enjoy. Somehow, it’s also thematically dense enough to make me want to see it again. And again. And again.
Besides, if Scarlett Johansson in a mermaid costume and Channing Tatum in a 1940s sailor outfit don’t excite you, nothing in this review could have convinced you to see this movie anyway.